Turkey on Wednesday unleashed its military forces across the Syrian border on U.S.-allied Kurdish forces, drawing near-global condemnation and sparking chaos as civilians ran for cover amid air and artillery strikes that are likely to be just the first wave of a lengthy, bloody assault.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced the first attacks early Wednesday, less than 72 hours after a phone call with President Trump and a subsequent White House statement that the Pentagon would pull a small contingent of U.S. special operations forces from the region to avoid getting caught in the middle of a war between Turkey and the Kurdish-led, U.S.-allied Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
Turkey’s initial four-pronged onslaught reportedly hit civilian areas, and there were early signs that the SDF was abandoning its fight against Islamic State forces in Syria in order to focus attention on the threat from Ankara.
“The SDF stopped the anti-ISIS operations because it’s impossible to carry out any operation while you are being threatened by a large army right on the northern border,” a Kurdish military source told the Reuters news agency.
Ankara, which insists the Syrian Kurds are allied to a long-running militant Kurdish separatist movement inside Turkey, began sending ground troops across the border into northern Syria to establish a new buffer zone.
U.S. lawmakers called the attacks “heartbreaking” and the “sickening” result of Mr. Trump’s decision to withdraw troops.
The president called the strikes a “bad idea” and urged Turkey to avoid civilian casualties. Mr. Trump also said the U.S. remains engaged with both sides of the conflict and threatened harsh but unspecified economic measures against Ankara if it did not pull back.
“We are speaking to both sides,” he told reporters at the White House. “We’ve been talking to Turkey for three years. They’ve been wanting to do this for many years. They’ve been fighting each other for centuries. They’re bitter enemies, possibly always will be.”
The U.S. fought alongside the SDF for years to roll back the Islamic State’s “caliphate” straddling the Syrian-Iraqi border. Kurdish officials estimate they have lost more than 10,000 fighters in the struggle.
But Turkey considers parts of the SDF to be terrorists and has vowed to push the group out of northern Syria altogether. Turkey also hopes to resettle millions of largely Arab Syrian refugees it has been housing during Syria’s brutal civil war.
European and NATO leaders blasted Turkey’s offensive, and the United Nations Security Council announced an emergency session Thursday to discuss the next steps.
Mr. Erdogan has remained defiant in the face of an international backlash and pledged to move ahead with a military campaign that he says is necessary to wipe out terrorists along the Turkish-Syrian border. Ankara has also been cracking down on criticism of the military campaign online, saying more than 75 cases have been filed against those “engaged in dark propaganda.”
“The Turkish Armed Forces, together with the Syrian National Army [rebel groups backed by Turkey], just launched #OperationPeaceSpring against Kurdish militias and the Islamic State group in northern Syria,” Mr. Erdogan said in a post on Twitter as Turkish planes reportedly began dropping bombs on Kurdish positions near the city of Qamishli and the towns of Tal Abyad and Ain Issa.
“Our mission is to prevent the creation of a terror corridor across our southern border, and to bring peace to the area,” he said. “We will preserve Syria’s territorial integrity and liberate local communities from terrorists.”
SDF leaders on the ground said Turkish shelling resulted in at least eight deaths. They also said the Turkish military targeted a detainment facility for ISIS fighters and argued that the attack could free the prisoners and help fuel the terrorist group’s resurgence.
“Vicinity of al-Chirkin prison hosting [ISIS] prisoners was shelled by Turkish army. The place where the most dangerous jihadists are held in,” SDF spokesman Mustafa Bali tweeted as part of a series of posts that also showed grisly images of injured and dying Kurds hit by Turkish airstrikes and artillery.
Mr. Trump has tried to walk a fine line between opposing the attack and backing the Kurds. He placed faith in Mr. Erdogan to not step over the line into all-out genocide and defended his core foreign policy conviction that the U.S. can no longer entangle itself in Middle Eastern conflicts.
“The United States does not endorse this attack and has made it clear to Turkey that this operation is a bad idea,” Mr. Trump said in a statement shortly after attacks began. “There are no American soldiers in the area. From the first day I entered the political arena, I made it clear that I did not want to fight these endless, senseless wars — especially those that don’t benefit the United States. Turkey has committed to protecting civilians, protecting religious minorities, including Christians, and ensuring no humanitarian crisis takes place — and we will hold them to this commitment.”
Mr. Trump said he expected Turkey to ensure that the thousands of ISIS detainees would not go free and appeared to suggest that U.S. forces have moved some of the most dangerous ISIS captives to other locations.
“We are taking some of the most dangerous ISIS fighters out,” the president said. “We’ve taken them out, and we’re putting them in different locations where it’s secure.”
He again faulted European nations that he said have refused to take back their nationals who traveled to Syria to join the Islamic State. He said most of the ISIS detainees wanted to go to Europe, even though the majority of the estimated 11,000 detainees are believed to come from Syria and Iraq.
Despite the U.S. and global calls for restraint, SDF leaders said civilians, including teenagers, had become casualties. Across northern Syria, thousands of civilians reportedly packed their cars and fled toward safety. Others tried to escape the region on foot.
Mr. Trump’s critics, including some usually reliable Republican allies, said the situation is the predictable result of the president’s stand-down order this week.
“President Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. forces from northern Syria is having sickening and predictable consequences,” Rep. Liz Cheney, Wyoming Republican, said in a statement. “Turkey is invading Syria in reported coordination with Russian-backed forces, ISIS terrorists are launching attacks in Raqqa, and thousands of ISIS fighters are biding their time in makeshift prisons. The U.S. is abandoning our ally the Kurds, who fought ISIS on the ground and helped protect the U.S. homeland. This decision aids America’s adversaries, Russia, Iran, and Turkey, and paves the way for a resurgence of ISIS.”
The Pentagon said roughly 1,000 U.S. troops will remain in Syria. The president’s decision this week affects only 50 to 100 U.S. special operations troops who had been operating in a key buffer zone along the Turkish-Syrian border.
But even that modest troop movement, some lawmakers say, sends a larger message that the U.S. is abdicating its responsibilities.
“American isolationism did not work before WWII, did not work before 9/11, will not work now,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, said in a post on Twitter. “When it comes to fighting ISIS, it’s a bad idea to outsource American national security to Russia, Iran, and Turkey. To believe otherwise is very dangerous.”
Mr. Graham and Sen. Chris Van Hollen, Maryland Democrat, announced what they called “severe sanctions” on Turkey, which they predicted would get strong bipartisan support. The sanctions target military relations and energy, as well as Mr. Erdogan and some of his government’s top officials.
“These sanctions will have immediate, far-reaching consequences for Erdogan and his military,” Mr. Van Hollen said.
Meanwhile, international leaders blasted the Turkish assault and looked for ways to head off what could become a major humanitarian crisis.
“We condemn the Turkish offensive in the northeast of Syria in the strongest possible terms,” German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg is traveling to Turkey, a NATO member, for emergency talks Friday with Mr. Erdogan. Mr. Stoltenberg tweeted that he intended to “ensure that the gains we have made in the fight against ISIS are not jeopardized.”
European members of the U.N. Security Council reportedly requested an emergency meeting of the Council on Thursday.
While Turkey has found little support, Russian officials have said they will try to facilitate a dialogue between the SDF and Syrian President Bashar Assad in hopes of ending the conflict. The Assad government has reached out to the Syrian Kurds to reconcile as Damascus tries to reassert control over all of Syria as the civil war winds down.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov blamed the U.S. for the crisis. He said Washington’s policy of backing the Kurds and then abandoning them has led to chaos.
“Such reckless attitude to this highly sensitive subject can set fire to the entire region, and we have to avoid it at any cost,” he said.
• Dave Boyer and Lauren Meier contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.
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